Graphic Design as the Preferred Medium of Capitalism

Victor Papanek’s essay, Design for the Real World, listed graphic design, particularly the field of advertising design, and the phoniest profession in the world. He argues that “There are professions more harmful than industrial design, but only a very few of them. And possibly only one profession is phonier. Advertising design, in persuading people to buy things they don’t need, with money they don’t have, in order to impress others who don’t care, is probably the phoniest field in existence today. Industrial design, by concocting the tawdry idiocies hawked by advertisers, comes a close second. Never before in history have grown men sat down and seriously designed electric hairbrushes, rhinestone-covered file boxes, and mink carpeting for bathrooms, and then drawn up elaborate plans to make and sell these gadgets to millions of people. Before (in the ‘good old days’), if a person liked killing people, he had to become a general, purchase a coal-mine, or else study nuclear physics. Today, industrial design has put murder on a mass-production basis. By designing criminally unsafe automobiles that kill or maim nearly one million people around the world each year, by creating whole new species of permanent garbage to clutter up the landscape, and by choosing materials and processes that pollute the air we breathe, designers have become a dangerous breed. And the skills needed in these activities are taught carefully to young people” (Papanek). His main topic of investigation was industrial design and how it was destroying the world one product at a time, but I wanted to go more in-depth into the role of graphic design as a purely capitalistic and anti-utopian profession, which is a bit difficult and self reflective considering I am a soon to be graduating graphic designer about to step head first into the world of commercialism.

Most graphic designers enter the field for a few reasons. Either their parents, proponents of the capitalism machine, tell their children that the only way they can go to art school is to major in graphic design because they see it as the only field that is perceived to be the slightest bit lucrative. A career in sculpture is unimaginable for Wall Street parents. Others enter graphic design because they are intimidated by the idea of having to become famous in a small way to sell their paintings. They are disillusioned, and enter design because they lack self-confidence or a certain level of naivety. So they enter graphic design as a career, and not a passion, and treat it reluctantly. They believe graphic design to be easy, as it is just moving things around on the computer. Lastly, people pursue graphic design because they are drawn to it as an art form, and want to pursue it almost like a painter, to make form and content based on a love for technology and typography. The graphic design program at RISD has its fair share of all three.

Many graphic design students at RISD do not yet understand the implications of their field until after they leave the academic setting. They have vague understandings that they want to work for Google, because of the “cool things” that the company is doing, or to work for Stefan Sagmeister, a legend of “fine-art” graphic design, and maintain their integrity as a non-corporate machine. Others take jobs immediately upon graduation to work for giants like Microsoft, Apple and Uber, because they are lured by the paycheck and are content doing bland production labor in order to meet their lifestyle requirements. But despite all the reasoning, most people graduating get jobs that are all essentially selling products to consumers at some level or another.

Graphic design, in the “real world” (outside of the art school sheltering of creativity and idea freedom), at its core, is simply adding gloss to the products that industrial designers make. We make the packaging that tells consumers that they should buy this product from a store. We make beautiful logos that tell consumers to trust the company (Why, don’t you see the smile in our logo, in those bright and childish colors? There is no way we are poisoning the environment!). We make advertisements that make you want to buy things, without ever using the word product or for sale. We are sneaky and deeply psychological, and we sometimes don’t even understand what we are doing. Companies like Uber, who are easy for designers to work for because they have a premise of making the world a better place with better, faster transportation, are actually machines of unchecked rape and sexual assault. Are the graphic designers, who designed the unintentional platform for rape, to be held accountable for the travesties? Are graphic designers, who sold cigarettes to the uneducated masses in the 50s and 60s to be held accountable for the side effects and deaths from cancer? We are essentially selling killing products to the masses, even today, and we are not being held accountable. Is it our moral obligation to not work on these jobs, or will someone always be there for the right price to do this dirty work? Michael Rock, in his essay “Who’s responsible?”, asks a similar question: “With all the talk about social responsibility, do we really understand the complexity of the problem as it pertains to design? The issue of responsibility in a profession involved in the modulation of information is daunting. There is a implicit power involved in graphic design that is derived from an involvement with image production, and all power carries with it responsibility. But to date, we have not sufficiently addressed this aspect of the question. Is social responsibility a function of the content, the form, the audience, the client and/or the designer?” (Rock).

But where does the graphic designer draw the line? If you refuse to work for Google, then you refuse to work for the companies that Google is associated with, and then you refuse to work with companies that receive funding from Google, for example, then you are left with few options in a very competitive job marketplace. Perhaps the graphic designer decides to work for the company that uses unethical business practices, as a way to change it from the inside, but finds that it is an impossible task. Or even the graphic designer sees all the printed matter that a company is producing as wasteful and environmentally irresponsible, and convinces them to move it online. Then the graphic designer is out of a job, because there is no longer a need for their services.


“The only-thing engineers love more than Escher prints are primary colors, perhaps they appeal to their sense of reductive order. Remember the rainbow Apple? Microsoft Windows? NeXT? Google has always packaged its unfathomably complex, eerily invasive, world-dominating operation in a cutesy wrapper of bright tones and charming cartoons: the graphic equivalent of all those creativity-inspiring foosball alcoves and Lego pits. The forced naiveté of the past identity — friendly serif font in Lifesaver™ hues — has now been re-imagined in full Montessori: even rendering the inaugural appearance in crayonimation. The new sans serif typography would be at home on a long strip over a classroom blackboard — maybe with a dotted blue line marking the x-height — lending it an Electric Company vibe (as in TV show not the public utility). In case you miss the pre-school reference, the rotated lowercase “e” hammers the point home with an obvious wink. What’s the message? We’re innocent” (Beirut).

Pay in the graphic design world is directly related to the amount of perceived freedom and artistic control a designer has. Many designers take a large pay cut to work for small studios that do more “interesting” work, and others take large pay incentives for menial work for a rich, large company. But, all  the work is the same underneath who the person is working for. The designer at Pentagram, the most well respected firm for graphic design in the world who produces a (arguably) high standard of work, is still making imagery for Coca Cola to sell their dangerously sweet beverages and for the Clinton political campaign with her ties to Wall Street (although no political candidate is an ideal client).


Hillary Clinton’s 2016 logo, designed by Michael Beirut at Pentagram

Politics and graphic design have a long history. Michael Bierut, a partner at Pentagram, recently designed Hillary’s logo for her presidential run. Hillary hired arguably the most famous graphic designer currently to give her a logo that would be a key image for her campaign, and she paid a lot for it. Beirut delivered, he presented her with a blue and red logo that essential said absolutely nothing, which is what the campaign wanted. The Obama campaign did the same in 2008, they hired street artist Shepard Fairey to create the iconic red and blue image of Obama’s face for campaign materials. The Obama campaign was ridiculously smart to hire Fairy to design the campaign imagery—they needed an image that would not be too charged to run away the older generations, but fresh and youthful to bring in the younger votes. This election year, the candidates’ logos have come under intense scrutiny by the internet and press. It is more important than ever for politicians, sellers of ideas, to use the best graphic design talent for their campaigns. And young designers who are working for the large firms who get hired, have to work on the campaigns, regardless of their political leanings if they want to keep their jobs.


Imagery from Obama’s 2008 campaign by Shepard Fairey, a RISD graduate, pointed at getting the younger generations to vote.

Over the last year, I was working for a design firm in New York City, and it turned out to be one of the most enlightening experiences in my life, and both unfortunate and fortunate. The firm has a god-like reputation, with Stefan Sagmeister leading the helm and a young and trendy Jessica Walsh co-piloting. Working full time for them is a position that many graphic designers consider to be the peak of the industry. They are the best, the most creative and talented. They work with clients that are all envy-worthy, such as BMW, Jay Z, Adobe, musicians, various art museums, and publish their own articles, movies and exhibitions. But they are, underneath all the glitz and glamour, rich capitalists, and they try very hard to keep that fact from becoming public.

The designs are all just careful (although sometimes not careful and clearly blatant) rip-offs of existing designers’ work. You are told to make it look exactly like something original by a very talented designer, who they refuse to hire for freelance because they can do it cheaper in house (albeit illegally).

A piece by Sandy Skoglund “Revenge of the Goldfish” from 1980 to the left, and to the right, an image by Sagmeister & Walsh for the department store Aishti from 2015.

Working there was a letdown, however it removed the naive attitude I had of the design industry, because it was one of the places left in the world where creative freedom and unique approaches were still highly valued (or so I thought). But, like everything else in the world, capitalism has touched it, and it is a victim of its environment.

Graphic design has now become the worst offender, and is by far the least transparent about it role in capitalistic society. It is now far worse than the advertising world portrayed by the television show Mad Men, and is far less glamorous. We are selling increasingly dangerous products and services, and are less conscious about our involvement in corporate greed.


Andrews, Tara. “Design and Consume to Utopia: Where Industrial Design Went Wrong.” Design Philosophy Papers 7.2 (2009): 71-85. Web. 25 Mar. 2016.

Papanek, Victor J. Design for the Real World; Human Ecology and Social Change. New York: Pantheon, 1972. Print.

Needy. “Graphic Design in the Postmodern Era.” Emigre 47 (1998): Web. 25 Mar. 2016.

Rock, Michael. “Who’s responsible.” 2×4 (1992): http://2× Web. 25 Mar. 2016.

Rock, Michael, “On the New Google Logo.” 2×4 (2015): http://2× Web. 25 Mar 2016.


2 thoughts on “Graphic Design as the Preferred Medium of Capitalism

  1. I really enjoyed your article, perhaps because it had the tone of an undercover GD agent “taking it down from the inside” or at least the personal perspective of understanding an industry you are so involved with. You also touch upon your bosses at S&W committing you to replicate work done by recognized artists too expensive to be hired on freelance by the firm, and we are all reminded that nothing is new. At least in the creative industry, we are constantly reminded of a precedence set by the artists and designers before us, and the creatives before them. Regardless of the relativity of “new” and “original” ideas, I don’t consider this to be a discouraging discussion. I think there is an optimism in constantly trying to find the new and original ideas in form, subject, or presentation. This optimism, the optimism that we have a constantly rising threshold for potential, is what drives our creative future in more than just technology.


  2. I think you created a great narrative within this post as the journey from entering the graphic design department at RISD to understanding how the industry actually works. You gave scenarios and insight into the different factions of graphic design from the fine art perspective to the corporate commercial branding. You also make an interesting point within the article as to who is responsible for all those advertisements during the 50’s and 60’s, and if the designer today should be accountable at all. We would like to believe that the industry has changed since then, but obviously it has not. The example of Pentagram’s s structure of power, and Sagmeister & Walsh’s inability to hire freelancers create a future scenario that isn’t so appealing. The advertising industry within America is one of the systems that needs to run within this country in order for capitalism to work, and it’s corporate greed has definitely made it one of the most dangerous.


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